Shocking investigation on stray electricity

JACKSONVILLE - Dave Kalokitis is a kind of electric detective. His Power Survey Company uses a high tech truck to find contact voltage hazards. Kalokitis is helping CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson see if there are any here in Jacksonville, Fla. - a city he's never tested before.

"This is an electric field sensor which is a scientific instrument," Kalokitis says. "That's a strong signal, that's something we need to check out."

A volt meter confirms something's wrong. "I'm looking at 119 volts here. That's the same voltage you'll find in a wall socket in your house."

A simple touch with grounded metal confirms the risk. Contact voltage can be hidden in plain sight -- in any city. Old frayed wires, or wires that are improperly installed, touch against metal and electrify it. The problem is only getting worse due to the nation's decaying infrastructure.

WATCH: Hidden danger of contact voltage

Luckily, most people who touch the metal don't make good enough contact to get seriously hurt. But if you're barefoot -- or wet -- the hazard can be deadly.

It happened to 14-year-old Deanna Green in Baltimore in 2006. Her father Anthony says the ground was wet -- when Deanna touched a park fence at softball practice. Nobody knew it - but the fence was charged by frayed lighting wires buried underneath. 227 volts killed her instantly.

"Never in a thousand years would you think that while you were there, and while your child was standing in front of you - you would lose her in such a manner," says Deanna's mother Nancy. "It's devastating."

Our Jacksonville survey found a dozen hazards in public places where kids play and anyone could come in contact. The 127 volts on one light pole was enough to light a bulb - without a socket.

"We'll put some safety cones around it, some safety tape," says Kalokitis. "Then, we can alert the utility and they can come take a look at it.

Nobody tracks contact voltage injuries nationwide. There are media reports of 19 deaths in 13 states since the early 1990's.

In New York City in 2004, grad student Jodie Lane was electrocuted while walking her dogs She stepped on a slush-covered utility box with bad wiring.

CBS News checked with the 25 biggest cities and found only a few actively searched for contact voltage, including New York, Seattle, San Antonio and Boston.

Boston affiliate WBZ's stray voltage report

Mike Hyland, of the American Public Power Association, says problems are rare.

"Safety trumps all," Hyland says. "So if there's a situation out there that's unsafe, that could affect the employees or the public - utilities usually immediately take care of it.

After being notified by CBS News, the Jacksonville Electric Authority said it inspected all the poles downtown and "repaired 27." They've also decided to "begin annual inspections," which would include a metal pole that measured 126 volts -- within view of the utility's headquarters.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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